Living in Los Angeles, you might not think that Reading, Pennsylvania has much in common with our local population, with theater goers at the Mark Taper Forum. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about working class friends in 2000 and 2008, explores the belief in sweat-equity and the betrayal by faceless CEOs that doesn’t stop with the working class.
In 2011, Nottage interviewed residents of Reading, one of the poorest cities in the US. It was the year that Occupy Wall Street began in New York City and soon spread to other areas. In NYC, the protestors took over Zuccotti Park on 17 Sept. 2011 and weren’t forced out until 15 Nov. 2011. Some went on to occupy banks, colleges campuses and corporate headquarters and board meetings.
“Sweat” begins with a parole officer (Kevin T. Carroll) meeting separately with two ex-convicts–Jason (Will Hochman) and Chris (Grantham Coleman) in 2008. We flash back to an imaginary bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the bar keeper Stan (Michael O’Keefe) and his assistant Oscar (Peter Mendoza) are serving drinks to three women, Tracey (Mary Mara), Cynthia (Portia) and Jessie (Amy Pietz).
This threesome have worked for years at the same factory, following their parents and even their parents’ parents onto the floor for long hours but pay well-above minimum wage. Cynthia is divorced from Brucie (John Earl Jelks) who has wallowed in the morass of drugs and begging for money and forgiveness, not necessarily in that order. And today, 18 January 2000, is payday and Brucie is looking for a handout.
Cynthia is supported by her girlfriends when Brucie comes around, but this play isn’t about the bad blood between Cynthia and her ex or even the troubles that causes with their son, Chris. As we follow these women through the months, we learn that they are loyal to their factory and have a sense of entitlement–they’ve bought an imaginary portion of the company through their sweat equity, one of generational privilege and hinders the entry of other families, like the growing Latino population. Even though Cynthia and her husband are black, they and Tracey and Jessie don’t see Latinos like US-born Oscar as worthy of entering their place of employment and the status quo is preserved by the union.
When the management suddenly gives one of the floor workers a chance to apply for a management position, that sets Cynthia in direct competition with Tracey. Cynthia wins the position, but begins losing her friends. At first, one suspects it’s both jealousy and the need to build a barrier between the sweaty floor workers and the suit-wearing supervisors who spend their days in air-conditioned officers in comfy chairs.
Yet before the year is out, the management betrays the floor workers and make Cynthia the sacrificial lamb. Oscar will also “betray” the bar patrons who once looked down upon them and he will be betrayed by the factory management who will move the jobs away to Mexico. Eventually, we’ll learn about the crime committed by the ex-convicts and how all of these people are tied together.
You might think that if you get a college education that you will be safe and not easily disposable like the unskilled floor workers of this imaginary Pennsylvania company, but just today, I was talking to someone whose company started in Pasadena–using the experts and consultants from JPL and Caltech. They moved to Long Beach just recently–better space, better benefits–meaning more for less. That’s happened often enough in Pasadena.
In 2000, there was a keyword-based pay-per-click company, called GoTo which became Overture Services in Pasadena. A spin-off from Idealab, it was the first company to successfully provide sponsored search services. In 2003, it was acquired by Yahoo and became Yahoo Search Marketing. Yahoo began sending representatives from Yahoo Search Marketing to India to train people and while the management reassured all of the college graduates that their jobs would not disappear, eventually most of the work went to India. According to the Los Angeles Times, Yahoo Search Marketing had employed about 1,200 people when it moved to Burbank’s Media Studios North in 2006. It was Burbank’s sixth largest employer in 2008 with about 1,800 employees when it began a round of layoffs. By 2013, around 400 people were still working at the Burbank facility. By 2016, the Burbank office was closed.
Overture and Yahoo Search Marketing had used a large number of contingency workers–temps who hoped for a permanent position and were thus less likely to complain. I worked at Yahoo before and for a short while after the move to Burbank, starting as a temp and becoming a full-time employee in 2003. I knew temps, one of whom said that his index finger was dead from the repetitive motion. Regular employees did complain and file workers comp claims, but were silenced or, if they filed workers comp claims like me, moved into positions that would be eliminated a month later.
Companies want loyal workers but workers–skilled or not, white collar or blue collar, can’t trade in sweat equity when they are injured and that’s also addressed in Nottage’s play–Stan is a former floor workers at the factory, but he was also injured and found work at a lesser pay scale in the bar.
Even if the workers remain healthy, sweat equity won’t guarantee work with proper benefits, not if cheaper workers can be found elsewhere, even if it means the economy of the city will collapse when the company moves elsewhere.
“Sweat” isn’t just about the workers at Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s about an economic system that asks for sacrifices at the bottom while the top 1 percent is only looking at how to cut costs below and pad the comfortable lifestyles above. Company loyalty seems to be a one-way street, just like serfs to a callow king.
“Sweat” continues at the Mark Taper Forum through 7 October 2018. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772.